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Jane Austen’s books are full of lessons for readers of all times. Her novels are classics for many reasons and one of those reasons is that one may return to her books time and again and be educated, edified and refined in the ways of human nature and relationships.
For the purposes of this article, I have taken two lessons from each of Jane Austen’s six novels: Pride and Prejudice, Persuasion, Sense and Sensibility, Northanger Abbey, Emma and Mansfield Park.
Pride and Prejudice
Lesson 1: Don’t prejudge people.
George Wickham is a charmer who immediately gains the respect and admiration of several people in this novel though they hardly know him. Mr. Darcy, though he has known Mr. Wickham all his life, makes very few comments about him but when he does, they are very biting. No one listens to Darcy though because most people have prejudged Darcy’s natural reserve as snobbery.
“At length Darcy spoke, and in a constrained manner said, ‘Mr. Wickham is blessed with such happy manners as may ensure his making friends—whether he may be equally capable of retaining them, is less certain.’ “
It becomes known very soon, however, that Mr. Wickham is a very dastardly character!
Always take time to really get to know people before deciding if they are worthy of respect and admiration.
Lesson 2: One person’s attitude can affect an entire household.
Mrs. Bennet is famous for her “nerves” which have been the friends of her husband for many years. Mrs. Bennet appears to be ignorant of all the distress that her nerves cause her family.
When her daughter Lydia scandalously runs off and elopes with the reprehensible George Wickham, Mrs. Bennet creates so much drama that the family can hardly figure out how to deal with Lydia, for they are trying to attend to her!
“My mother was taken ill immediately, and the whole house in such confusion!”
“Oh! Jane,” cried Elizabeth, “was there a servant belonging to it who did not know the whole story before the end of the day?”
“I do not know. I hope there was. But to be guarded at such a time is very difficult. My mother was in hysterics, and though I endeavoured to give her every assistance in my power, I am afraid I did not do so much as I might have done! But the horror of what might possibly happen almost took from me my faculties.”
“Your attendance upon her has been too much for you. You do not look well. Oh that I had been with you! you have had every care and anxiety upon yourself alone.”
It is always best to seek to be mindful of those around us and not create unnecessary drama in an already chaotic and distressing situation.
Lesson 1: Though unhappy, one can still be good, honorable, sweet, capable and esteemed by all.
Anne Elliot is one of the greatest heroines in all literature, for she is so good, virtuous, longsuffering and helpful to all. Most everyone admires her and seeks for her comfort.
In a moment of crisis, Captain Wentworth said of Anne:
“…..but if Anne will stay, no one so proper, so capable as Anne.”
There is so much to be learned from studying the character of Anne Elliot. Anne teaches the reader how to gracefully experience life even when things don’t go according to plan.
Lesson 2: How to write a love letter:
Persuasion contains the greatest love letter in all literature. To learn how to write a proper love letter, study this letter that Captain Wentworth wrote to Anne Elliot.
“I can listen no longer in silence. I must speak to you by such means as are within my reach. You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope. Tell me not that I am too late, that such precious feelings are gone for ever. I offer myself to you again with a heart even more your own than when you almost broke it, eight years and a half ago. Dare not say that man forgets sooner than woman, that his love has an earlier death. I have loved none but you. Unjust I may have been, weak and resentful I have been, but never inconstant. You alone have brought me to Bath. For you alone, I think and plan. Have you not seen this? Can you fail to have understood my wishes? I had not waited even these ten days, could I have read your feelings, as I think you must have penetrated mine. I can hardly write. I am every instant hearing something which overpowers me. You sink your voice, but I can distinguish the tones of that voice when they would be lost on others. Too good, too excellent creature! You do us justice, indeed. You do believe that there is true attachment and constancy among men. Believe it to be most fervent, most undeviating, in F. W.
“I must go, uncertain of my fate; but I shall return hither, or follow your party, as soon as possible. A word, a look, will be enough to decide whether I enter your father’s house this evening or never.”
Sense and Sensibility
Lesson 1: Any house can become a home.
In the beginning of the novel Sense and Sensibility, the Dashwood women are forced to change their mode of living. Though heartbroken about their new reduced circumstances, they courageously downsize into a lovely little cottage by the sea and set about creating a home from the little house.
“With the size and furniture of the house Mrs. Dashwood was upon the whole well satisfied; for though her former style of life rendered many additions to the latter indispensable, yet to add and improve was a delight to her; and she had at this time ready money enough to supply all that was wanted of greater elegance to the apartments.”
Any dwelling can be turned into a home. All it takes is love, care, some warm decorations, and baked goods to create a cozy home.
Lesson 2: Be a true friend in bad times as well as good times.
Marianne Dashwood suffers from heartbreaks and heartaches and melancholy that women throughout the ages would not wish on their worst enemy. Her sister Elinor is there for her through all the dark nights. Elinor comforts Marianne, talks with her, soothes her, and protects her. Elinor teaches the reader how to be a true friend.
“From a night of more sleep than she had expected, Marianne awoke the next morning to the same consciousness of misery in which she had closed her eyes.
Elinor encouraged her as much as possible to talk of what she felt; and before breakfast was ready, they had gone through the subject again and again; and with the same steady conviction and affectionate counsel on Elinor’s side, the same impetuous feelings and varying opinions on Marianne’s, as before.”
Marianne’s pain and suffering became Elinor’s anxiety and she sought to help her, pray for her and do all she could to ease her sister’s suffering. This is such a powerful lesson on how to be a true friend and comfort to those who need us.
Lesson 1: All little girls are born to be the heroines of their lives.
The first sentence in Northanger Abbey should be the first sentence in the book of all little girls’ lives.
“No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be an heroine.”
Every woman is the heroine of her own life. Women have more of an influence on those around them than they will ever know. Children especially look to the women in their lives for comfort, wisdom and love.
Lesson 2: Fiction mustn’t be confused with reality.
Catherine Morland loves reading books—especially the gothic novels of Ann Radcliffe. Catherine is an innocent young woman who becomes so wrapped up in her books that at times, she has difficulty separating fiction from reality. In fact, Catherine greatly embarrasses herself when she visits the home of her friends Tilneys and imagines a gothic fantasy that Mr. Tilney has murdered his wife. Her dear Henry is forced to set her straight:
“If I understand you rightly, you had formed a surmise of such horror as I have hardly words to—Dear Miss Morland, consider the dreadful nature of the suspicions you have entertained. What have you been judging from? Remember the country and the age in which we live. Remember that we are English, that we are Christians. Consult your own understanding, your own sense of the probable, your own observation of what is passing around you. Does our education prepare us for such atrocities? Do our laws connive at them? Could they be perpetrated without being known, in a country like this, where social and literary intercourse is on such a footing, where every man is surrounded by a neighbourhood of voluntary spies, and where roads and newspapers lay everything open? Dearest Miss Morland, what ideas have you been admitting?”
It’s wonderful to read but not to the extent that one loses touch with reality and insults people with fanciful notions cooked up in our overactive imagination.
Lesson 1: Do not interfere in the love lives of friends.
No one can ever truly know what is best for another. Emma Woodhouse believes she is clever at matchmaking until she discovers that her interference into the lives of those around her has caused much heartache. When she realizes this, she feels deep regret and ponders to herself:
“The first error and the worst lay at her door. It was foolish, it was wrong, to take so active a part in bringing any two people together. It was adventuring too far, assuming too much, making light of what ought to be serious, a trick of what ought to be simple. She was quite concerned and ashamed, and resolved to do such things no more.”
If friends ask for advice that is one thing but to be willful and interject oneself into the life or lives of friends without their full consent is very imprudent and causes quite a bit of anguish for many parties involved.
Lesson 2: We mustn’t be careless with the feelings of others.
Miss Bates is a lovely spinster who lives on a very modest income with her mother. She adores her niece Jane Fairfax. Miss Bates is neither a wit nor is she knowledgeable about the latest trends in fashion or politics. She talks a lot but has not a mean bone in her body. Most people find her annoying but cannot dispute that he is a lovely woman. Some people poke fun at her behind her back but in one scene, Emma pokes fun to her face.
“Oh! very well,” exclaimed Miss Bates, “then I need not be uneasy. ‘Three things very dull indeed.’ That will just do for me, you know. I shall be sure to say three dull things as soon as ever I open my mouth, shan’t I? (looking round with the most good-humoured dependence on every body’s assent)—Do not you all think I shall?”
Emma could not resist.
“Ah! ma’am, but there may be a difficulty. Pardon me—but you will be limited as to number—only three at once.”
Miss Bates, deceived by the mock ceremony of her manner, did not immediately catch her meaning; but, when it burst on her, it could not anger, though a slight blush shewed that it could pain her.
“Ah!—well—to be sure. Yes, I see what she means, (turning to Mr. Knightley,) and I will try to hold my tongue. I must make myself very disagreeable, or she would not have said such a thing to an old friend.”
Mr. Knightly reprimands Emma for being so careless with dear Miss Bates’ feelings and Emma is shamed into feeling so utterly guilty that she vows to become a better person and never willingly injure Miss Bates or anyone else in such a way again. This is a lesson for all time—it never wise or good to hurt the feelings of others.
Lesson 1: Sometimes the weather does not follow the calendar
Walking is excellent for exercise and most characters in Jane Austen’s novels partake of walking for exercise. However, sometimes, the weather does not cooperate with the calendar as Edmund explains to Mrs. Grant:
“And really,” added Edmund, “the day is so mild, that your sitting down for a few minutes can be hardly thought imprudent. Our weather must not always be judged by the calendar. We may sometimes take greater liberties in November than in May.”
This rule still applies today. Though the calendar may say that it is November or December, the weather may well be 70* rather than 30* so people must enjoy good weather and walks outside when they can regardless of time of year. Walking is so beneficial to both mental and physical health.
Lesson 2: Girls who are not out in society must behave according to propriety.
During Jane Austen’s time, there were many social rules for girls who were out in society verses girls who were not out. Girls who were out were officially on the market for husbands. Miss Crawford explains to Edmund how girls who are not out should behave:
“And yet, in general, nothing can be more easily ascertained. The distinction is so broad. Manners as well as appearance are, generally speaking, so totally different. Till now, I could not have supposed it possible to be mistaken as to a girl’s being out or not. A girl not out has always the same sort of dress: a close bonnet, for instance; looks very demure, and never says a word. You may smile, but it is so, I assure you; and except that it is sometimes carried a little too far, it is all very proper. Girls should be quiet and modest. The most objectionable part is, that the alteration of manners on being introduced into company is frequently too sudden. They sometimes pass in such very little time from reserve to quite the opposite—to confidence! That is the faulty part of the present system. One does not like to see a girl of eighteen or nineteen so immediately up to every thing—and perhaps when one has seen her hardly able to speak the year before. Mr. Bertram, I dare say you have sometimes met with such changes.”
It is still a good rule of thumb for girls to be quiet and modest – something that is certainly not encouraged in the modern world. Also, one does not like to see a girl of eighteen or nineteen up to everything—this is certainly a timeless lesson indeed. Women of all ages should carry themselves in a respectable and graceful manner—a timeless manner that will never go out of style!
- Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
- Persuasion by Jane Austen
- Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen
- Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen
- Mansfield Park by Jane Austen
- Emma by Jane Austen